COLUMN: Public health advocate asks: Why does Ontario seem so unprepared for COVID-19 testing?
Posted: April 3, 2020
(April 2, 2020)
By: Donald Macdonald, Sudbury Star
Natalie Mehra has watched the number of infected Ontarians tick up and kept quiet.
She agrees that Premier Doug Ford “is striking the right tone” during this crisis. She’s fully behind the praise given to health-care and front-line workers trying to tamp COVID-19 down.
But the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, a public health-care advocacy organization, has questions about why the country’s biggest province has tested fewer people per capita than anywhere else.
She fears the answer might have everything to do with Ontario’s preparedness, or lack of it, once the virus wave began to crash.
“If we look at the concrete measures, the preparedness, how slow things have been to get off the ground here, I think we can now rightfully and in a completely non-partisan and public interest way, be a lot more assertive here about saying: ‘Hey, what is going on?’ ” she said.
“We can do a lot better in this province and we should be.”
Ontario’s response to the pandemic continues to ramp up with announcements Wednesday of more testing and quicker results as the pace of infections quickens.
But, the coalition says Ontario should be striving for the gold standard recommended by the World Health Organization: to test and isolate virus victims, then rigorously track down close contacts for quarantine.
“When we don’t do these things, people die. And by the worldwide evidence, many more people die,” Mehra said.
Mehra said the criteria for testing are still too narrow. People without symptoms aren’t being tested; nor are are people coming out of quarantine. And there’s “no systematic testing of vulnerable populations or health-care workers in health-care facilities,” she said.
She fears there hasn’t been enough tracking of close contacts and that too much infection has gone unchecked.
Ontario ranks dead last in per capita testing with 334 tests per 100,000 people. One reason could be that Ontario is Canada’s most populous province. As of Wednesday’s news conference with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, there had been almost 58,000 tests done provincewide.
To compare, on Saturday, Quebec had tested 65,900 people. Alberta and B.C. track close to Ontario’s numbers.
It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of tests and testing agents worldwide, but the coalition wants to know why other provinces still tested more.
Mehra’s biggest concern is what happened after March 12, when Ford told Ontarians to “go away, have a good time, enjoy yourselves” on March break vacations.
Obviously, the world changed within hours.
Within days, the province was rolling out its testing regimen and asked Ontarians, if they felt sick, to review the online assessment tool and contact their primary care provider, health unit or Telehealth Ontario before visiting one of almost 60 assessment centres across the province.
Those are too many steps for the sick, Mehra said, and both public health units and Telehealth have been choked with calls.
More alarming was how hard it was to find assessment centres. Mehra said she thought they’d be listed on the province’s COVID-19 website. They weren’t.
The coalition wanted a list. They started with the health units, but they were swamped. They moved on to the hospitals, local media and canvassed their own members.
Mehra said they found out each centre had different standards. Some, like the two in London, triaged patients to keep them away from emergency and urgent care centres. Some centres offered testing on site. Others prohibited walk-in traffic.
And some didn’t publicize their locations, fearing they’d be overwhelmed. One such centre was in Sarnia, which, in recent days, has seen a frightening cluster of cases and deaths.
Every day at public briefings, the Ontario government has been at the forefront of social distancing policies and demanding compliance, including a vow to ticket those who don’t comply.
But Mehra is left with a lingering feeling that perhaps the province wasn’t as ready as it should have been.
A national pandemic plan was finished in January, she said. “What happened from January to March? How come we seem to be so completely unprepared?”